Survivors say as many as 240 people have died in two shipwrecks off Libya, a UN refugee agency reported Thursday, bringing this year's toll to more than 4,220 migrants dead or missing in risky Mediterranean Sea crossings, the highest count on record. A spokesperson for UNHCR says 31 survivors of two shipwrecks who arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa reported that the rubber dinghies they were traveling in had capsized Wednesday in heavy seas shortly after leaving Libya. The first dinghy—which carried around 140 people, including six children and about 20 women, some pregnant—sank when wooden planks laid at the bottom broke, causing the dinghy to capsize 25 miles off the Libyan coast. Twenty-nine people were rescued, and 12 bodies were recovered.
In a separate operation, two women found swimming at sea told rescuers that 128 other people had died in their wreck, the AP reports. UNHCR emphasized that the number of dead was an estimate. In both cases reported Thursday, most people on board appeared to have been sub-Saharan Africans. UNHCR said the increased number of deaths this year is partly due to the fact that smugglers are often using rubber dinghies, which are prone to deflating, capsizing, and losing people who fall overboard. In addition, more migrants are arriving with severe burns from being exposed to fuel mixed with sea water in the bottom of the dinghies. Smugglers are using rubber dinghies because they are cheaper and easier to obtain. (Read more migrants stories.)